TAMPA — Hoping to restore a "sense of calm" to the office, Hillsborough commissioners picked as the new county attorney a man who recently did the same work for the city of Tampa.
County commissioners voted 5-2 Wednesday to make Charles R. "Chip" Fletcher the county's new attorney.
Fletcher, 43, was the Tampa city attorney for three years under former Mayor Pam Iorio, ending in 2011 shortly after she left office. He was selected over Jim Porter, 48, who served as deputy to former County Attorney Emmy Acton.
Commissioners generally said they had two fine candidates, with most expressing comfort hiring either of them. But they said Fletcher stood out for his straightforward answers during interviews and an easy demeanor.
"Both of them satisfied my desire to want to see positive, constructive change," said Commissioner Victor Crist, who acknowledged being on the fence until Tuesday. "What to me is the most important defining factor: Who do we, and who do I, think we could work with the easiest?"
Crist said that, as a type A personality, he felt Fletcher would provide balancing guidance as board members with similar drive wrestle with tough political decisions.
"He's the kind of guy … who could provide a sense of calm and bring me back down to earth," Crist said.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Chairman Ken Hagan both initially voted for Porter. The two later switched their vote to make Fletcher's selection unanimous.
"I'm very honored by the confidence of the commissioners," Fletcher said. "I look forward to serving the county."
He declined further comment.
No salary, or salary range, was set for Fletcher. In advertisements for the job, the county said pay would be determined by experience. A start date also has not been set.
Commissioners will use their executive search firm to negotiate terms of his contract, which will then be crafted into a formal employment agreement by outside lawyer Richard McCrea. County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he expects the contract to include less lucrative severance terms than those enjoyed by Fletcher's predecessor.
Fletcher replaces Renee Lee, who was forced out by commissioners more than a year ago and was making nearly $213,000. She had faced allegations of offering questionable legal opinions, such as one blessing a secret pay raise for herself and former County Administrator Pat Bean, whom commissioners fired in 2010. Lee was censured and fined last month by the Florida Commission on Ethics for her role in the pay-raise issue.
"I think the office has been through turmoil," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who said Fletcher had best convinced him he could run an office free of "shenanigans."
Both Bean and Lee had employment contracts that entitled them to a year of pay and benefits as severance if fired for something short of a criminal act. State law has since sharply limited severance payouts.
The county attorney oversees 57 employees, including 34 lawyers, and a $7 million budget.
As the city attorney, Fletcher led a staff of 22 in-house lawyers and a budget of about $4.5 million. Since leaving the office, he has worked for the Gray Robinson law firm, with clients that include the county's public bus agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
He worked briefly as an environmental engineer, and then as a policy analyst for the Florida House of Representatives, before earning a law degree from Florida State University in 1996.
Fletcher became a shareholder in the de la Parte & Gilbert law firm and later a partner with Shumaker Loop & Kendrick, largely representing local governments.
Porter, 48, had spent 14 years in the Hillsborough County attorney's office, starting out of college and working his way up to one of Acton's top deputies. Acton stepped down in 2003 after several employees in the office accused her of hostile treatment and other misbehavior.
Some of those same employees claimed Porter engaged in some of the hostile treatment, and that history clearly dogged him.
Commissioner Les Miller said hiring Porter would be like returning a "cancer" to the office.
Hagan, the chairman, made a forceful argument for Porter, noting that he was the only one who had been on the board during the controversy. He said Porter had been responsible for many changes to county land use rules and always provided sound legal guidance.
Porter did not attend the meeting.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.